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You are here: Home > Writing in Education > Writing at University > Writing in Practice > Current Issue > Vol. 4 > Writer as Ethnographer: Textualizing War and Restoring the Gaps in the (Graphic) Narrative
Writer as Ethnographer: Textualizing War and Restoring the Gaps in the (Graphic) Narrative
Author: Adnan Mahmutovic and Lucy Durneen
Adnan Mahmutovic and Lucy Durneen probe into the particularity of that which must be saved at all costs.


This analysis started with high stakes in its attempt to answer the core question in the personal essay entitled “Comic, War, and Ordinary Miracles”: why would one risk one’s life to save some cheap comics? From this autobiographical moment, experienced by Adnan Mahmutovic during the war in Bosnia, we probe into the particularity of that which must be saved at all costs. Saving comics in times of war is an act of individual worth but which, by means of metonymy, becomes a communal issue in the way community can, potentially, transgresses ethnic, national, political and ideological borders. We argue that a compulsive revisiting and restoration of memory, here symbolized by the medium of comics, is a way of reconstructing an approximation of life and an attempt to locate oneself in an increasingly-global narrative(s) of our humanity.


Keywords: comics; war, narrative; ethnography; knowledge; community


“Storytelling helps us to find our place in the world.”

Gene Tracy


Stories, as Gene Tracy (2015) notes in his essay “Sky Readers”, are ways of organizing knowledge, of making sense of the seemingly disparate in order to re-establish order where there is none. Tracy writes:

The ongoing discovery of where I am ... is deeply entwined with memory formation. Neuroscience studies reveal that this is because forming the knowledge of place, and building that sense of our relation to other parts of the world, requires the brain to combine several different sense modalities. Hence information must be stored and then retrieved from memory, sifted and examined, and the brain’s theory of where we are in the world constructed.

Indeed, as Joan Didion (2006) famously said, “we tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Living here is less about physical survival and more about our very being. The human impulse is to revisit and re-tell those stories, compulsively, obsessively, in order to reconstruct an approximation of that life and to locate oneself in a global narrative. But what happens when where I am is rendered impossible to define in the wake of the displacement of war? Living through storytelling, for those of us who have experienced war, either individually or vicariously through someone we love, is connected to the knowledge of who we are or who we want to be both individually and collectively. As writers, we are interested in this assembling and concretizing of knowledge – personal and global – through the construction of stories, be those fabula or memoir, or chimeras of many genres. We consider how one might record experience, or access the memory of it, when that memory itself is incomplete and the ability to textualize it is compromised. The kinds of narrative that require a grappling with the slippery thing that is memory most often arise in response to some kind of rupture in our sense of being-in-the-world. The focus of this essay, then, is to consider the rupture in identity caused by proximity to war, and how we personally approached restoring it through our own creative practice.

We are: Adnan Mahmutovic, a Bosnian refugee living in Sweden, and Lucy Durneen, a British writer whose Master Aircrew father was sent to the Balkans during the war in the 90s. Together, we wrote a hybrid piece, “Comics, War, and Ordinary Miracles” (published in World Literature Today 2015 and adapted for BBC Radio 4 in 2016), which is the central text of our analysis here. This essay-duet exemplifies a dialogue between research and memory, between analysis and expressionism. It was written in tandem by two artists-ethnographers who belong to different nations, ethnicities, religions, and genders, but who nonetheless found a communal, albeit transnational, experience. It is a narrative that examines the correlation between preserving stories and the preservation of identity. In this sense, it shows how the gaps in the narrative can be filled in textual terms to produce what we might call an ethnographic MRI scan, a printout of a particular point in history that the grand historiographic narratives would overlook.

Our respective experience differs in that Mahmutovic takes on the role of witness, while Durneen’s contact with the war in Bosnia was vicarious, delivered predominantly via pale blue aerogrammes from her father while on Detachment in the Balkan region. This, we feel, gives us a unique angle when it comes to examining the relationship between war, memory and experience. On top of a rather standard academic practice – deliberately not tied to any particular field but drawing on several fields relevant for creative writing – we also take a practitioner’s approach to our critical enquiry, utilizing the perspective of being the ones who write to perform a self-examination of our own creative work and the processes of writing it. Additionally, we will consider the way in which comics, themselves reliant on the synthesis of differing sense modalities to generate emotional a/effect, might be especially suited to that process of memory reconstruction that enables identity to be reclaimed in the wake of the trauma of war – a literal textualizing (or therapeutic rendering) of the experience. Following Karin Barber’s (2007) argument that texts are reflexive “commentaries upon, and interpretations of, social facts,” and as such a “community’s ethnography of itself” (4), we aim also to investigate the way in which comics might reconstruct or help re-identify one’s place in a world where identity is particularly at risk. In this sense, our aim is, similar to that of Art Spiegelman in Maus, to find a way to assert ourselves as writer-ethnographers and see what implications that may have for writing.

In an interview with Damien Stankiewics (2012), Amitav Ghosh offers an interesting statement on the way creative work encapsulates knowledge that academic writing does not manage to convey:

But after I finished my dissertation I was left with a nagging sense of dissatisfaction: I felt that everything that was important about my time in Egypt had been left unsaid. … I was haunted by my experiences. … While living in Egypt, I did two kinds of writing. I kept field notes and I also wrote a set of diaries. In my mind the field notes were the “anthropological” part of my work; the diaries were more literary. My dissertation was based almost entirely on my field notes; similarly the first-person narrative in Antique Land is based on my diaries.

A sense of being constrained by the academic form of dissertation writing has thus produced fiction from the field, but also, in line with the argument of this volume, kept developing experimental ethnographic writing and new genres. (Stankiewics 536-7)

However, the anthropologist Helena Wulff (2016) brings to our attention that for Ghosh, who has a PhD in Social Anthropology from the University of Oxford, the artistic discourses of prose and poetry exposed certain ethnographic and anthropological knowledge that might otherwise have remained obscure. Far from simply making stuff up, the textual space afforded by his hybrid autobiography/novel In an Antique Land (1992), became the most appropriate canvas on which to display his (lived) research as recorded in his diaries. Its depth and veracity could only be communicated through the heightened reality afforded by the narrative structures of something more closely resembling fiction. It is not unlike Kurt Vonnegut (2000), himself a student of anthropology, endlessly working on his “famous book about Dresden” (15), needing to purge himself of experiences that could ultimately only be expressed as literature. In the end Vonnegut is unable to do anything but write of Dresden until he has transferred those memories to the page and the gaps do remain: “I’d like some help remembering stuff” (Vonnegut, 2000: 15). Experience is converted to text, fossilized inside it, ready for excavation at a later stage.

This is, in part, why Wulff (2016) considers literature a form of research in its own right, carrying just as much weight as fieldwork notes. Ward Keeler (2013) observes too of the undergraduate teaching of anthropology that “if reading ethnographic monographs arouses little interest among students … writing and film most compellingly play[s] upon the interest [we] have in other people’s lives.” Literature makes us “see a fair segment of a society depicted in a fair depth” (227-8). For Wulff and Keeler, both fiction and memoir themselves textualize experience with as much legitimacy – we could substitute this for authenticity or ethnographic value – as a more consciously conceived anthropological or historical study, which Keeler defines as anthropology’s “strongest calling card” (Keeler 227). What an author records or leaves out of an account acts as a psychic barometer of sorts, the narrative informed by a complex, if unconscious, series of codes and values which, although they may differ from those held personally by the author, are nonetheless chosen and expressed by him/her in the text. Knowledge is embedded in the text. Art Spiegelman’s narrator-self reflects in MetaMaus (2011), the collection of notes and interviews about his famous work Maus, that “memory is a very fugitive thing” (Spiegelman 28), but the implication even in that statement is that it remains present somewhere, resisting discovery but not immune to it.

It could be said that comics, as a medium, are particularly fitting both for the reclamation of memory and for the development of a writer as ethnographer – and essentially this is the subtext of what we thematize in “Comics, War and Ordinary Miracles.” There are many comics that have dealt with war (or conflict) and ethnography, including Maus, Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis (2007), many works of Manga, and numerous titles from the French-Belgian school in particular (for instance Bilal and Tardi gave us stunning works about WWI, WWII, and many post-WWII conflicts in European history). Given our connection to the Balkan war in the 90s, we will refer here to one that explores that specific context, Joe Sacco’s Safe Area Goražde (2000).

Following his famous work on Palestine, Sacco records time spent in Bosnia during the war, his art mainly based on his own sketches, notebooks, and diaries. This form of comics journalism has gained much praise because his research was conducted in terms of Bronislaw Malinowski’s method of data collection called participant observation, which at the turn of the twentieth century challenged the traditional paradigm of a post-fact type of research involving interviews or questionnaires. In this way we might be inclined to see him more as an anthropologist than journalist, something Sacco himself admits to having considered. Sacco raises glasses of moonshine brandy with Edin, eats banana cake with the Silly Girls, sings the songs of The Beatles with Riki, gives out “lipstick and letters” and has “some laughs with [his] pals” (Sacco 67). On his return to Goražde after being stranded in Sarajevo following tighter control of access via the Blue Road, he notes: “it’d been my turn to understand how much more than a few kilometres of road separated me from them” (Sacco 67). The relationship with the observed, the researched, is by turns intense and remote, but ultimately Sacco’s ability to leave confirms his observer status, his participation only ever simulated. Visually we see this paralleled in Sacco’s own caricature of himself, famously blank-eyed, no more than the impression of a guide leading the reader through Goražde’s ruins, himself led by more figuratively rendered characters, a strategy that, according to Versaci (2012) “causes him to stand out as someone who doesn’t quite ‘fit’ into this landscape” (Versaci 119) even as he is dancing, drinking, laughing and mourning inside it. Sacco’s method is not far removed from that of a writer who is a cultural insider. In any case, as in Ghosh’s note, this type of storytelling is necessary in order to convey the full spectrum of knowledge, where the researcher/artist struggles with formal conventions and looks for other ways to expand the universe, to evoke Rushdie’s famous dictum.

In his hybrid Narralogues, Ronald Sukenick (2000) posits the thesis, “narrative represents the truth” (Sukenick 12). He is not writing of war, but the sentiment is applicable enough. “Truth,” in terms of representing experience with authenticity, with accuracy, needs to be redefined to recognise that it can only ever be “of its moment.” This is exemplified by Spiegelman when he explains how in Maus he was trying to pry open his father’s memories of the Holocaust. At the same time as he trusted his father’s words as being the accurate information from a witness of a genocide, he admits he was always having a nagging feeling/knowledge that some of those memories may not be accurate. The greatest case in point is the orchestra in Auschwitz, whose presence on the station ramp is well documented, but which his father Vladek categorically refused to believe ever existed. Although he felt he was “given fairly good access to what he [Vladek] could get access to himself” (29), Spiegelman was nonetheless aware of memory’s fugitive status, saying: “I remember my frustrations when he would recite almost word for word an event he’d told me before. I guess that’s how memory works though – it gets replaced by language” (28).

Spiegelman’s experience of writing Maus shows how once a memory is put into a certain form the narrative becomes an ersatz memory, more stable, easier to preserve and also share. Ulric Neisser highlights this divergence between the remembered and the remembering self, suggesting that the self that was remembered yesterday is not the historical self of yesterday, but only a reconstructed version (Neisser 28). In curating Vladek’s memories to form that narrative, Speigelman also authors the reconstruction of his father’s historic self and in doing so locates his father (and by implication himself) in a post-Holocaust world in the wider ethnographic sense, even if the memories themselves remain somewhat unstable.

Certainly, the attempt to access experience is shared by much war writing, which often struggles with both the inability of language to express experience and the inadequacy of conventional narratological structures to convey it. Writing-as-ethnography, and consequently production of knowledge, is in this sense larger and more complex than fact-checking and data collection. This is revealed more acutely as we approach such texts with an intent to analyse as both academics and writers, that the analysis calls for the (re)accessing of those multiple forms of knowledge we potentially used in the writing of the original story: memory, experience, literary criticism, ethnology, anthropology, history, psychology, sociology, politics, cultural studies.

The first realization we have as we try to analyse our own creative work, and the making of it, is that the difference between academic and creative writing has to do with the extent to which one uses knowledge explicitly or implicitly. The point of writing a story, even a personal essay that contains more reflection and telling, is to hide the mechanisms related to theory and methodology. It is to reveal memories while hiding the processes of remembering. It is to convey knowledge while trying, through the form and style, to hide the sources of that knowledge. As such, creative writing is the opposite of academic discourse, whose purpose is to highlight the mechanisms, to lay out struggles with philosophers and critics, staking one’s territory in diverse fields. Creative writing, when it includes all this, also goes to great lengths to hide it all. What gives merit in academic discourse is most often preposterous in artistic production (even in postmodernism). It is this essential cover-up, the conspiracy that is art, which constitutes it and makes it easy to dismiss as production of knowledge.

Our own personal essay, “Comics, War and Ordinary Miracles”, which uses comics as a theme as well as it employs narrative strategies from comics, is unashamedly Janus-like, one mouth textualizing the experience, the other analyzing it. Memory is recovered, extracted from one text to become re-lived in the second. In fact, much of Durneen’s half of the essay is focused around the notion of being able to enter a memory and change it, to re-textualize it, to alter experience with the power of language, and in doing so achieve, if not a different outcome, then one in which the possibility of such was externalized. The act of ethnographic research happens in a twin exchange: Durneen is compelled into primary research of her own, remembering her father’s involvement in the Bosnian War as RAF Master Aircrew, even as she attempts to perform the more conventional research required to respond to Mahmutovic’s story of trying to save his comic books from the Serb army.

“Comics, War and Ordinary Miracles” takes this story as its heart: in 1992, Mahmutovic and his best friend hid their comics, largely superhero adventure stories, in a septic tank at their home in Banja Luka in an attempt to prevent them from being destroyed in the war. That pre-emptive action in itself destroyed them. More than two decades later, Mahmutovic told Durneen the story after meeting at a short fiction conference, and her response was to attempt to track down and replace the lost comics, titles she knew little of – the Bonelli legends Dylan Dog, Martin Mystery and others – which revealed much more about the significance of comics as a means of preserving stories than she anticipated, giving way to deeper insights about the raw data she had already collected and resulting in further research into Mahmutovic and his history. By asking Mahmutovic to write an essay, Durneen was unwittingly acting as an ethnographer and psychoanalyst. She was inquisitive, probing, analytical, researching him as a person/character and his history, which was also a part of her European history. It was a peculiar form of interview, because at the same time he was, unknowingly, interviewing her. Furthermore, through conversations with Durneen, Mahmutovic was effectively researching himself, primarily his own memories, which eventually made it possible to write his part of the essay. In the process, the interviewer became as much an interviewee, Durneen remembering events from her life that were connected to Mahmutovic’s, either directly (her father’s service in the Balkans) or indirectly (similar feelings of being an outsider, or a geek). The lines between being the subjects of study and the agents who performed the study kept blurring.

Without this dynamic type of research there would have been no personal essay, and yet the texts read as if we both just sat down and poured everything onto the page. We did not behave as a researcher and researched. We occupied both roles at the same time, participants and observers, the researcher’s access into the memories and traumas of the researched giving reciprocal access to the same. At each point, we both had to dig deeper into our memories and into European history, which was no more accessible to us because we had lived it. And, precisely because much more was at stake than in a simple relationship between a scientist and an object of study (our friendship in fact), the entire process required considerations and types of inquiry none of us would have been concerned with in our ordinary academic work. There was an awareness that led to a constant and consistent questioning, among other things of the relationship between the form and the content. At one stage, for example, Mahmutovic – mindful of the ghost of Edward Said – sensed there was a risk that he, as a character in Durneen’s part of the story, might become the exotic Other, something about which she felt entirely unaware and unconvinced of in its Orientalist sense.

However, there was that which Fabio Girelli-Carasi (2017), in the context of Holocaust literature, called “the dimension of Otherness” (Girelli-Carasi 5) citing Primo Levi’s introduction to Survival in Auschwitz: “The need to tell our story to ‘the rest,’ to make ‘the rest’ participate in it, had taken on for us, before our liberation and after, the character of an immediate and violent impulse, to the point of competing with our other elementary needs” (Girelli-Carasi 5-6). Whether Mahmutovic had requested it or not, Durneen had nevertheless made herself one of “the rest,” participated in his story, taken it on and returned his memories to him blended with her own, an enforced merger. Ultimately, this derived from feeling that, given an awareness of how “pathetic” it was to believe “replacing a comic book might heal the other kinds of wounds that war leaves a person with” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 50), the least that she could do was to tell his story. But to some extent, Durneen also aims to express the frustration with language which does not adequately convey the impact of realizing that she was “(not) eating”. Mahmutovic, in her imagination, “stuck two fingers up at [the] danger and leapt over the gate of a comic book collector in inner-city Banja Luka” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 47). In the act of imagination, she pushed herself into his space-time continuum:

When your friend tells you about the comic books in the septic tank, it’s like you are watching the scene in a snow globe, or Asimov’s chronoscope, these two kids and their wheelbarrow going up one street and down another … Somewhere in this is a need to change something. If you could shout down through the time vortex. If he could look up into the ether to see you waving. (Mahmutovic and Durneen 45)

“Comics, War and Ordinary Miracles” uses this metaphor of a snow globe to convey the sense that the memories of personal histories seem to exist in a hermeneutically sealed bubble of sorts, that they could, by some kind of linguistic magic, be shaken up and allowed to settle into a different scene. But this same metaphor actually highlights how there is always a risk of transference, and at worst of revision, taking place between memory and research. Or, to put it another way, memory-as-research and research-as-secondary-act can potentially collide to produce confusing and devastating, results. The intradiegetic advice of Mahmutovic to Durneen as her narrator-self recalls their Facebook messages is particularly pertinent: “There’s more to the story than what’s in your snow globe” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 50).

Similarly, in MetaMaus, Spiegelman recounts how he almost used words from Tadeusz Borowski, believing they came from his father, the broader research he was doing on the Holocaust easily merging with the memories he was recording. We note the possibility of a similar experience when writing about the war in the Balkans, using both our own and other people’s memories/stories, as well as countless history books, TV broadcasts, and newspapers. Yet many of the records available at the time of events were frequently examples of the production and spread of propaganda, and more often than not they came into conflict with his own memories. For instance, during the ethnic cleansing of Banja Luka and its neighbouring towns and villages, local TV channels and newspapers would speak about the defensive war the Serbs were waging against terrorists, mentioning places and dates of battles, while the people who lived in those places at those times were mainly in hiding and had no weapons. We could say that a researcher risks working within an academic snow globe of sorts, using for instance newspapers published at the time to gain an understanding of the situation, but without an awareness of precisely the main function of those news outlets to produce fake news and alternative facts (and we use these phrases with caution).

Spiegelman expresses great anxiety in relating things such as his father being unable to remember the existence of the Auschwitz orchestra, which he suspects might lead conspiracy theorists to assumptions as disturbing as Holocaust denial, but he cannot know, and therefore cannot express, the specific type of anxiety a witness to genocide may feel facing a history revisionist and genocide denier. He cannot know, unlike Mahmutovic, what it is like to be exposed to direct propaganda that describes one’s reality while one is experiencing it. He cannot know what it is like to have someone who was nowhere near the events one experienced offer with great certainty some theory that both distorts the facts and/or gives them the most fantastic explanation. As a son of a Holocaust survivor he may vicariously feel the pain in the face of such action, but he cannot experience the moment of doubting one’s own memory in the most disturbing way, a question of whether something one saw, or the beating one received, really took place. The knowledge that comes out of this type of memory is an essential part of art, and the expression of this type of memory requires a different kind of creative toolbox.

The question that the essay asked remains: why were comics so essential to our sense of identity and ultimately what granted access to the rawest memories of war that would become narrative? How was it that they became a way (indeed, for us, the way) to dig into and understand memory and experience? We return to the particularities of the graphic narrative, with its sequential means of storytelling and relationship of varying interdependence between verbal and visual modes, and the broader question of conveying the experience of war. Comics, in which text is an image as much as image is text, are read sequentially but taking in the entire composition simultaneously, or as Nick Sousanis (2015) terms it, “allatonce” (Sousanis 62). If the human mind is structured around stories, we need to consider how the act of reading comics is entirely different as a teleological process, which brings us closer to replicating that primary act of transferring experience across the writer-reader barrier in a way that uni-modal narratives control differently.

In Unflattening (2015), a graphic work of non-fiction based on his Columbia doctoral thesis, and which explores this concept in significantly greater detail than this essay is able to, Sousanis defines the two key structural modes of comics as being “hierarchical (words) and rhizomatic (images), interwoven in a single form.” For Sousanis, “meaning is conveyed not only by what’s depicted, but through structure, size, shape, placement and/relationship of components” (Sousanis 66). Sequential and simultaneous modes are held in “electric” tension, mimicking the way the left and right hemispheres of the brain interact. When taken together,

As Bakhtin observed, these kaleidoscopic views open “our own monolithic and closed world” to the “great world of one’s own plus “the others.” Seeing through another’s eyes from where they stand and attending to what they attend to serves to shift our vision from one-dimensional to a more multidimensional view. (Sousanis 39)

Furthermore, in comics, the particular cognitive leaps made during the transition from one panel to the next, referred to as closure, require a high level of reader participation, generating empathy due to the different way in which personas and narrative scenarios are aligned. Comics create a space in which the reader finds emotional affect connected directly to persona context and environmental information. As Spiegelman is often quoted as saying, (2017) comics “echo how the brain works. People think in iconographic images, not holograms, and people think in bursts of language, not paragraphs.” As Alison Mandeville (2017) writes in a review of Marcelino Truong’s graphic memoir Such a Lovely Little War: Saigon 1961-63: “we don’t read graphic novels to make complete sense of history but rather to try to understand and process the human impact of moments in that history, through our senses, our bodies.” We can see too that when used to explore personal experience – and the graphic novel is becoming an increasingly common format for memoir – memories are embedded across both the chronos and topos of the narrative, enabling, perhaps, a more multi-dimensional reassertion of identity and place in the world. By “seeing through multiple eyes,” Sousanis says, “we can trace otherwise invisible connections across layers of time and space/As with a sphere in flatland, from a higher dimension/- connectedness once obscured becomes evident” (Sousanis 45).

This seems true even where, for various reasons, a certain amount of anonymity is preserved. We might think of Sacco’s face, dwarfed by the outsized glasses, or more shockingly, the rape of the women in Goražde’s maternity ward that happens beyond, in the dark space of the transitions between panels. In fact, visual anthropologist Benjamin Dix draws attention to the “anonymity of the cartoon format” as being one of its “main attractions” for his narratives, which aim to “highlight human rights and social issues” but without feeling voyeuristic or being exploitative of trauma in the name of art (O’Connor 2015). Dix notes too how certain actions take place outside the edge of the page, implied only. Anonymity enables such implication, and implication demands more of a reader’s empathetic reactions. But even when faces are anonymised – as Sacco says that he could not enter the psychology of the Israeli soldiers and therefore “in a lot of cases … refrained from drawing their faces” – a sense of this being a verifiably real world inhabited by real people remains. In Dix’s case this includes using a photographic background for line drawings to reinforce this verisimilitude whilst retaining a sense of representation rather than literalism. The property of comics to involve the reader in their narrative construction, to make them enter the text via its transitional spaces, effectively makes the reader of these narratives of war part of “the rest” that Primo Levi speaks of, the witnesses to the witness testimonial. The stories have been “commended” to them, as Levi instructs in the poem “Shema”, that prefaces Se questo è un uomo, and the implication is a promise to listen, to remember, to respond.

Much war writing confronts how language fails us when trying to codify the full horror of genocide, of civil war, forced migration, internment, as literature and these texts, in particular are narratives of transience, of placelessness, diaspora, where even language disappears or alters as it crosses borders or enters prison camps. We see verbal narratives flounder, from Levi’s struggle to recall Dante’s Canto of Ulysses in Se questo è un uomo or the realization that in Auschwitz “hier ist kein warum to Vonnegut’s songbird crying “poo-tee-weet” in Slaughterhouse 5, to Mahmutovic himself, writing in his semi-autiobiographical short story “Afterword: Homecoming,” which begins eleven years after his coming to Sweden as a refugee: “One other thing made me realize how estranged I was from Bosnia. The language... It was not the poetry I had forgotten about, it was the excessive Bosnian swearing … How in the world does a man forget to curse?” (Mahmutovic 138). One of the things that Durneen did not expect in her search for the lost Dylan Dog comics was to find that the Bosnian language had all but vanished from the region’s contemporary literature. She herself is silenced by the reply of the collector who offers to help her search:

You know these are not English language? He says, as if things can’t proceed until this has been established. These comics are in the Croatian language. You ask if it’s possible to get them in Bosnian. His reply is a series of bewildered exclamation and question marks, and suddenly you realize a comic book is not just a comic book, that language is not just words uttered, that what you thought was knowledge is in fact just a haze, a silvered approximation of a war. (Mahmutovic and Durneen 48)

If memory formation, or preservation, is connected to place and its context, and assigned meaning through verbal expression, then such narratives, belonging nowhere, estranged from mother tongues, risk becoming such approximations, slipping through the gaps in the communal ethnography, displaced and forgotten at a deeper, anthropological level. As Mahmutovic’s narrator/self observes:

In Stockholm … a linguist colleague tells me that babies are exposed to their mother tongues even in the womb. It is an uncanny thing: swimming in a language like in the amniotic fluid, then swimming out of it as if I have emerged from the ice-cold Scandinavian sea onto some unfamiliar shore, breathless, and quite speechless. Quite curse-less. (Mahmutovic 140)

But comics, with its interplay of word and image, offers a possibility of anchorage, the visual “providing expression where words fail” (Sousanis 59). The simplicity of the most primordial means of conveying experience recorded becomes a way of not just telling that story but storing experience in a way that mimics the brain’s natural process of memory construction and retrieval.

Language, in terms of lexical semantic markers, is not itself required in that logical unearthing, as Durneen discovers when she finally gets a (reissued) copy of a 1998 Martin Mystery: “when you pore over them, in a language you can’t read so you have to navigate through image alone, it is their ordinariness, the intimate, insular relationship they set up with their reader, that really breaks your heart” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 48). This image is like an image from a comic book, like something drawn by Satrapi or Sacco, where the author deliberately maintains a comic-version of herself, puzzling over something and yet, ultimately, having the same experience Mahmutovic has (even though he understands the language). It is like in Slaughterhouse 5 where everything “is so jumbled and jangled … because there is nothing intelligent to say about a massacre” (16). The particular ability of a sequential visual narrative to circumnavigate the logical sequencing preferred by verbal narratives and still make sense (instinctive, gut sense), enables it to occupy a different representational space. There may be nothing intelligent to say about a massacre, but that does not negate the compulsion to communicate something, or to keep searching for an appropriate discourse to act as carrier, and potentially one that might yet not be dependent on a definition-in-negative or privative prefix. Sousanis reminds us that “languages are powerful tools for exploring the ever greater depths of our understanding, but for all their strengths, languages can also become traps” (52). Indeed, Theodor Adorno’s often misquoted dictum that to write poetry after Auschwitz would be a “barbaric act” suggested that meaning becomes almost the antithesis of language’s function when representing the experience of genocide.

As a way of conclusion, this essay has aimed to situate our enquiry within a broader discourse, but a personal question does remain. A key motivator of Durneen’s part of “Comics, War and Ordinary Miracles” was to understand why this cheap Italian fumetti, these perennially indefatigable heroes would “matter so much that a boy would risk his life to keep them safe, or that grown men would smuggle them to refugee camps” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 48). An observation that we could make is that it is not just through personal narratives, whether pure auto/biography or partially fictionalized, that we see the multi-modal quality of comics embedding a kind of identity blueprint for later reassembly – and this is significant in terms of our enquiry into the textualization/retextualization of memory and experience. We would argue that the particular emotional impact that comes from conflating text and image also allows for a more acute kind of identity imprinting to occur even when reading explicitly fictional stories – fabula such as the superhero narratives of “big-busted protagonists walking naked in … post-apocalyptic settings” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 40) and adventuring “art historian[s] anthropologist[s], and collector[s] of unusual objects” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 48) read by the young Mahmutovic in Bosnia.

We read, often, to escape. We read to experience the kind of ecstasy, “hopeful and romantic,” that Mahmutovic finds in the “soaring, suffering soul of the Silver Surfer as he tries to save humanity from Galactus” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 42). If Didion is right that we tell stories in order to live, we enter stories in order to in some way live forever. Clearly this process can and does occur across literatures of all forms, but in the same way that Sousanis’s electric tension between word and image, and the closure between panels, generate a more acutely empathetic response when reading comics, something of the reader’s existing identity might be seen to transfer to the page with greater vitality. Mahmutovic makes himself the comic book hero. Durneen, reflecting on her adolescent nerdiness, finds identification in the Marti Misterija she tracked down via the internet, despite being unable to read the language: “You had me at art historian! you want to shout. A comic book hero who is part nerd!” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 48). And it is a mutual exchange.

Mahmutovic alludes to Durneen’s question – why risk your life? – when he describes how nothing he had read after he had escaped Bosnia “felt as good as reading in [his] cold attic, breathing smoke of burning engine oil, Yugoslav army soldiers driving by and shooting at houses and religious buildings” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 43). The answer, then, might be simple: they were necessary. The immortality of those indefatigable heroes ensures that their intradiegetic identities are only ever suspended, always dwelling in the possibility of being brought back. What else would one do but save them, and in doing so, save a little bit of oneself? For Durneen too, experiencing the Balkan conflict only remotely — textualizing Mahmutovic’s story, re-textualizing it in combination with her own, remembering her own —gave her access to and catharsis for her very different wounds, even if “so small, so faraway in comparison” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 48-9). What Mahmutovic could not realize then was that those comics he had saved were already the “smelly and old artifacts like old scrolls from Indiana Jones” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 38), if not in physical age then in significance. In the pages of stolen Silver Surfer and Druuna, Mahmutovic could arguably find something preserved of the self, his own conversion into text, and a positive one at that: “nothing beats reading comics in wartime” (Mahmutovic and Durneen 43).



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Adnan Mahmutovic is a Bosnian-Swedish writer and lecturer at the Department of English at Stockholm University. His work includes a novel, Thinner than a Hair, a short-story collection, How to Fare Well and Stay Fair, and a book of literary criticism, Ways of Being Free. He is a lecturer in creative writing and English literature at Stockholm University, where he has started the first MA in Transnational Creative Writing.

Lucy Durneen has a PhD from Plymouth University where she is a lecturer in English and Creative Writing and Assistant Editor of Short Fiction. She has published a number of stories in literary journals, and has a collection entitled Wild Gestures. In 2014 she was shortlisted for the Bridport Prize and Highly Commended in the Manchester Fiction Prize.